Steve McQueen as Bullitt, the ultimate cardigan-clad car chaser

Slow-burning buzz surrounding Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive has prompted a re-examination of the ultimate car-themed film – Bullitt, released in 1968. If there’s anyone who could so consummately steal the scene from that highland green 1968 Mustang GT, its Steve McQueen, whose turn as a maverick cop-on-the-fringes set the standard for police thrillers. Lieutenant Frank Bullitt plays the game on his own terms – unpredictable and more than willing to defy authority, he radiates a natural coolness and is the ultimate anti-hero, a considered persona that was, by all accounts, closely intertwined with McQueen’s.

It was McQueen’s authentic but low-key, too-cool-for-school attitude that cemented his place at the top end of the men’s on the style barometer, and his carefully chosen attire in Bullitt are no exception to the rule. Bullitt’s look was devised by costume designer Theadora Van Runkle (also responsible for the equally iconic stylistic aesthetic of Bonnie and Clyde). Van Runkle carefully mixed casual separates to create an impeccable style that never strayed too far into ‘fashion’, and did much to cement McQueen’s reputation as the go-to guy for wearable knitwear.

There are several iconic looks within the film, and surprisingly, its knitwear that dominates. When worn by McQueen a maroon shawl collar cardigan looses any notions of granddad chic, especially when worn over a crumpled pale-blue shirt. Ditto a simple slim fit turtleneck paired first with a lightweight but coarse herringbone tweed shooting jacket (complete with a three button fastening and elbow patches) and later a slim fit trench.

Whilst information regarding the source of McQueen’s attire is contradictory (some reports suggesting Van Runkle mixed pieces from the actors own wardrobe into the mix, and Motor Trend claims that the ideas came from the actor himself), in the DVD commentary director Peter Yates claims that “Most of his clothes were in fact from Dougie Hayward….he [McQueen] loved English clothes.”

There seems to be scant evidence that the designs were Hayward’s, but they are very much in keeping with his relaxed yet classic aesthetic – jackets very often came with twin vents and high armholes, styled with slim fit wool-blend trousers – just like those that Frank Bullit favoured. Whatever the source, there’s no denying that the overall look has surprising longevity, and set McQueen on the path to sartorial infamy.

Aside – For those who prefer to savour McQueen’s masterful wheel-spin techniques (because after all, that’s what Bullitt is really about….), this article is certainly worth a look.

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